In fact, in Western navies, fleet surface combatants served primarily as escorts that protected the aircraft carrier. Thus, air defense and antisubmarine warfare became their dominant missions. For most U.S. Navy cruisers, that meant carrying long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), but the United States was the only country that could afford to operate such ships. Thus, the unarmored general-purpose destroyer was the mainstay of the world's surface fleets for most of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was the first country to equip these units with a surface-strike capability, and that development, combined with microminiaturization technology, drove the development and missions for nonaviation surface combatants during the Cold War's final years. Of course, there were also specialized surface ships such as logistics ships, mine countermeasures, and rescue/salvage ships, which were critical to naval operations.
Having been reduced primarily to the limited roles of providing naval gunfire support for amphibious assaults and supplementing the aircraft carrier's close-in air defense, battleships became the first major surface combatants to go. Britain's last battleship, the Vanguard, was commissioned in 1946, but the Royal Navy scrapped eleven of its surviving pre–World War II battleships before 1949. The Vanguard and the four King George V–class units were decommissioned by 1957 and scrapped in 1960. Similarly, the United States decommissioned all of its pre–World War II battleships by 1948, and the remainder left service by 1960. Naval planners briefly flirted with the idea of converting the four Iowa-class units into massive air defense and nuclear missile strike platforms but abandoned the idea because of the costs involved in modifying the heavily armored hulls.
The United States briefly brought the Iowa-class battleship New Jersey into service for a year during the Vietnam War and then returned all four Iowa-class battleships into service in the early 1980s but spent millions of dollars modifying them with new air defense systems and surface-to-surface missiles for both antiship and land attack missions. However, the age of their operating systems and the heavy manning required to operate those systems necessitated their retirement within two years of the Soviet Union's collapse. A 1995 review determined that they were no longer cost-effective to operate and surplus to naval requirements. All are now museum ships.
Although Soviet leader Josef Stalin flirted briefly with building battleships after the war, the Soviet Union in 1956 decommissioned its two surviving battleships, initially commissioned in the 1920s, and scrapped them in 1957. France discarded its two surviving battleships as well, the Richelieu and Jean Bart, in 1959 and 1960, respectively.
The Soviet Sverdlov-class gun cruisers carried 152mm guns and were based on a blend of Italian and German World War II–era designs and technology. However, the Soviets retained them primarily as flagships and naval gunfire support platforms. Interestingly, some of the U.S. Navy's latest cruiser designs were decommissioned relatively soon after entering service. The large light cruisers Worcester and Roanoke, for example, mounted a troublesome new main armament suite and served only from 1948 to 1958. The large Des Moines–class ships were used primarily as flagships in the U.S. Sixth Fleet, with the Newport News serving until 1975.
The British and French simply decommissioned most of their gun cruisers. The Royal Navy discarded all of its pre–World War II cruisers by 1949, and all but two of its modern cruisers had been decommissioned by 1965. Those two, the Lion and Tiger, were converted into helicopter cruisers after 1965, retaining only one forward 6-inch gun turret. Both were reduced to reserve status by 1979 and scrapped in 1986.
The United States modified a number of its cruisers to carry heavy long-range SAMs. The first of these, the former heavy cruiser Boston, was recommissioned as a guided missile heavy cruiser in November 1955, carrying two Terrier SAM systems in place of its aft 8-inch gun turret. The Canberra followed eighteen months later.
Other cruisers were subjected to a more radical modification. The former heavy cruisers Albany and Chicago were completely converted to air defense cruisers during 1959–1964, losing all of their guns to make room for two short-range (10 nautical miles, NM) Tartar SAM systems and two long-range (80 NM) Talos SAM systems. They were also equipped with sonars and antisubmarine rockets (ASROC) to become the world's first multipurpose cruisers (capable of antisurface, antiair, and antisubmarine warfare). Several U.S. Navy light cruisers surrendered their aft 6-inch gun turrets for Talos or Terrier SAM systems.
Finally, the United States built the Long Beach (CGN-9) as the first cruiser designed as a guided missile platform. More importantly, upon its 9 September 1961 commissioning, it became the world's first nuclear-powered surface warship. Initially completed without guns, the Long Beach had two single 5-inch gun mounts added in 1963 at the direct request of President John F. Kennedy, who thought it unwise to rely entirely on missiles for defense.
These conversions and decommissionings left destroyers as the workhorses for all the world's navies, including some whose missions were little more than coastal defense. The need to improve the destroyers' antiair warfare (AAW) and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities meant adding more radars, missiles, and eventually helicopters in order to increase their surveillance and attack ranges. As a result, destroyers become increasingly complex and expensive as the Cold War entered its second decade. A ship type that had averaged 2,200 tons of standard displacement in 1945 had grown to more than 7,000 tons by 1975.
In fact, among the democracies, legislative resistance to funding such expensive destroyers led to a complete reclassification of warships. The heavily modified classification system that dated back to the London Naval Limitation Treaties was abandoned completely. Now, destroyers were ships that focused on a single mission but had limited capabilities in another. Many multipurpose destroyers were then redesignated as cruisers. Ships that had once been designated as destroyer escorts (ASW-focused destroyers) became frigates, and coastal attack craft became corvettes.
Interestingly, perhaps the greatest changes in surface warship design came about because of Soviet developments in naval weaponry. Lacking the resources to build aircraft carriers during the Cold War's early years, the Soviet Union focused on developing long-range antiship missiles (ASMs) as well as SAMs for its ships. Thus, the Soviets introduced the world's first operational guided surface-launched antiship missile (SASM) into service aboard the destroyer Bedoviy in 1961. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) designated the ship as a Kilden-class DDG (guided missile destroyer). Its P-1 Strela Shchuka-A (NATO designation, SS-N-1 Scrubber) cruise missile with a nuclear warhead had a range of more than 90 nautical miles (NM), far beyond the Bedoviy's onboard radars and other sensors. The missile system's weight also affected the ship's handling capabilities and stability.
The Soviets then developed a smaller and shorter-ranged missile, the now famous SS-N-2 that NATO designated the Styx missile. Entering service in 1962, the Styx, with a range of 30 NM, equipped small coastal attack boats not much larger than the American PT boats of World War II. The much longer-ranged (300 NM) SS-N-3 also entered service that year when the Soviet Union's first Kynda-class cruiser entered service. As with the Kilden-class DDG, however, the Kynda's command-guided missiles far outranged the ship's sensors. To support a long-range engagement, the ship required an aircraft to remain within radar range of the target and provide its location to the ship throughout the engagement. For a reconnaissance or targeting aircraft to survive an engagement that close to the carrier seemed improbable in wartime. As a result, the Soviet Union focused on starting and winning the war with the first shot: finding and targeting the aircraft carrier and then launching the attack during the war's early minutes.
The United States had studied surface-to-surface missiles during the 1950s but abandoned them due to funding issues. It was hard to justify putting surface-to-surface missiles on surface ships after investing billions in aircraft carriers, aircraft, and SAM systems. Developing a guidance system for a surface-to-surface missile such as the then-existing Regulus missile did not seem cost-effective. More importantly, battleships and cruisers were the only units large enough to carry them. With their resources focused on aircraft carrier, aviation, and submarine technology, the West abandoned development of surface-launched antiship missiles in 1956. It was a mistake that would prove costly and embarrassing in the Cold War's third decade.
Secure in the belief that the carriers would always be there, Western intelligence agencies largely ignored the Soviet antiship missile threat. During the Vietnam War, since U.S. naval aircraft had destroyed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam's (DRV, North Vietnam) missile patrol boat force, these craft were not considered a serious problem. Certainly, they were not seen as a threat that warranted new solutions. All that changed on 21 October 1967, when a Soviet-supplied Egyptian missile patrol boat sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat with a single Styx missile without even leaving port. Fast coastal attack craft could no longer be taken lightly. One hit was enough to cripple, if not destroy, a $100 million unarmored warship.
The United States and France reacted swiftly, introducing high-priority programs to develop new missiles specifically designed to take out ships. The United States went a step further, developing long-range surveillance and targeting systems to support over-the-horizon engagements. Some were satellite-based, some were installed on ships, and others were installed on submarines and aircraft. All navies began to develop electronic and infrared detection and countermeasures systems to defeat these missiles' terminal guidance. Electronic warfare now encompassed more than the need to defeat an enemy's air defense systems. By 1972, a ship's electronic warfare capabilities were as critical to the ship's survival as its weapons systems.
These developments occurred parallel to the U.S. Navy's development of a global naval monitoring system driven by the Soviet Navy's first worldwide naval exercise, OKEAN-70, and the introduction of the first exercises demonstrating its first-shot tactics. The resulting Ocean Surveillance Information System (OSIS) entered service in 1972. By the late 1970s, OSIS had taken on the additional mission of supporting rapid over-the-horizon targeting by U.S. Navy and NATO missile-equipped ships. Although the Soviets never developed a similar global oceanic monitoring capability, they did develop an extensive array of electronic air- and space-based targeting systems to support their naval units. Both sides developed increasingly complex and long-ranged antiship, air defense, and surveillance systems.
All this led to navies pursuing two completely different paths of surface warship development. Smaller navies could no longer afford oceangoing ships equipped with all of these systems. This forced them to seek smaller ships that carried weapons and sensors more suited to the missions of coastal defense, environmental protection, and patrol and control of economic exclusion zones.
The rebirth of mine warfare after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War also rejuvenated interest in mine countermeasures ships in the U.S. Navy and in Asian navies. (North Korea's and Europe's navies had never lost interest in mine warfare.) General-purpose corvettes with limited AAW and ASW capabilities and mine countermeasures ships have become the predominant units of the world's smaller navies. Occasionally, these navies employ frigates as their flagships and on long-distance patrols, but 900–1,100-ton corvettes are these navies' workhorses. Destroyers and 10,000-ton all-purpose guided missile cruisers are found only in oceangoing navies—those whose country can afford the ships and the expensive shore facilities and ocean surveillance networks required to support their operations.
Surface ships execute the majority of naval operations, from show-the-flag and gunboat diplomacy, through disaster relief and emergency evacuation operations, to land attack and maritime transport operations. Although the combatant ships garner the headlines and are most often featured in the recruiting posters, a balanced fleet includes tankers, transports, repair and rescue ships, and even range and telemetry ships to help with the calibration of weapons systems and electronics. The Cold War saw these ships evolve from the simple, manually operated systems and uncomplicated designs of World War II to the highly automated, lightly crewed ships of today. Moreover, the Cold War's end brought new missions beyond the traditional ones of the past. Environmental and resource concerns and disaster relief are now major naval missions, and ship designs are being modified to accommodate those new missions.
Carl Otis Schuster and Dallace W. Unger Jr.
Pavlov, A. S. Warships of the USSR and Russia, 1945–1995. Translated from the Russian by Gregory Tokar. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.; Polmar, Norman, et al. Chronology of the Cold War at Sea, 1945–1991. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.; Raymond, V. B. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1950–51. London: Jane's, 1951.; Sharpe, Richard. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1989–90. London: Jane's, 1990.; Sondhaus, Lawrence. Navies of Europe, 1815–2002. London: Pearson Education Limited, 2002.; Watson, Bruce W., and Susan M. Watson, eds. The Soviet Navy: Strengths and Liabilities. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986.